Intimate Earthquakes: An interview with Sensory Cartographies

This interview originally appeared in Vector 292.

We’re lucky to be talking today to Jonathan Reus and Sissel Marie Tonn, whose collaborative work appears under the name Sensory Cartographies. Their work includes, among other things,  the creation of wearable technologies that explore the nature of sensation and attention. […] So like many great collaborations, there’s quite an interdisciplinary aspect to Sensory Cartographies, is that right?

Sissel: Yes, we both have our different backgrounds. Jon really comes from a music and performance background, as well as instrument building and media archaeology. And my background is more in visual arts and arts research.

So tell us how Sensory Cartographies came to be.

Sissel: It started in 2016, when we got an opportunity to do a residency together in Madeira. Sensory Cartographies really grew out of that residency. I’d been to Madeira before in 2013, and started this drawing project, to do with Madeira’s position in the Age of Exploration, which you could really call the Age of Colonization. 

So we’re talking kind of 15th century onward?

Sissel: Sure, and this was a really significant time for the development of biology and botany, kind of culminating with the Linnaean nomenclature system in the 18th century, for instance. I learned that actually Madeira was a really important stop-over for these European ships, partly just because it was kind of their last stop in the Atlantic before they reached the other side, but also because botanists would bring back specimens they had collected, and they’d use Madeira and its almost subtropical climate to acclimatize these plants. And you can see that in the botany of Madeira to this day. Something like 80% of the plant specimens there are non-endemic. 

Wow.

Sissel: So the island is like this botanical remnant of that process. And on top of that, they also have a really big and old herbarium there. So Madeira’s history is very involved in this process of classifying and archiving plant species. In the natural history museums, or the herbarium, there’s this kind of feel of a bygone era. It’s all, you know, pinning butterflies to corkboards, going out to conquer nature by mapping and labelling everything, by putting nature into categories. And in that process, of course you realize that it is almost impossible to categorize nature, because it’s just a constantly developing mass of life. 

Right.

Sissel: Then as well as that, we both had an interest in mapping in the more spatial sense. Different practices of making the world navigable.

Jonathan: Where did that come from? Was that because of working with Judith, before we went to Madeira?

Sissel: Yes, I think so. Jon had already worked with an anthropologist called Judith van der Elst, whose work is about navigating space and geospatial technologies.

Jonathan: Remote-sensing satellite geospatial technologies was her research focus.

Sissel: She explores how geospatial technologies are not universal across all populations. So geospatial technologies are developed primarily from a Western perspective, but it’s not the only perspective there is. Space can be organised in multiple different ways.

What if I were to say, “Whoa, that makes no sense. Space is fixed and universal. Sure, there might be different cartographical conventions, but all maps are essentially doing the same thing.” It can be quite an elusive idea, this idea that space itself is different for different people, according to our different spatial technologies and spatial cultures. But I feel like your Sensory Cartographies artworks really bring that idea to life.

Sissel: We recognized it from our own ways of perceiving space, because even between the two of us, those are also completely different. From Judith’s work, we were very interested in different ways of creating tactile maps. If you look at the Ammassalik tactile maps from Greenland, or the Polynesian and Micronesian stick maps, there’s this acknowledgement of the subjectivity of spatial experience. So we were thinking about how to create a mapping technology that might explore the constant interplay between the sensing body and whatever environment you’re making sense of. And of course, our bodies are filtering out information about the environment constantly. So both biology and culture filters information and focuses attention.

Can you give us an example?

Sissel: The Pueblo tribe that Judith was working with are extremely attuned to the directions of the wind, which is I think something that we in the Netherlands — even though it’s very windy! — it’s something we don’t really pay attention to at all. I never even know where the wind is coming from, because I have no real sense of north, west, south, east. But there you have a way of navigating, which has been around for thousands of years, that is particularly attuned to the sorts of movement and differences that our environments are constantly presenting to us. So that the starting point. We were going to this place that had this very important historical and geospatial significance, to do with fixing the natural environment. We wanted to try to sort of subvert that a little bit.

So these two things are closely related, right? On the one hand, cataloging ecology and biology. And on the other hand, trying to map geography. These practices aren’t just about understanding, or even about keeping things neat and tidy. They’re also about conquest and control.

Sissel: That’s right. Both geographical mapping and mapping biology and botany were tools of empire. They were means of control, and means of justifying what was being done to the natural world, and to the people in the places they were conquering. These practices are inseparable from that history. They’re not neutral in any way.

Yet that kind of scientific observation and catalogue can present itself as being neutral, or even as exemplary of what it means to be neutral in the first place.  But can we break this down a bit more? I guess when you think about how all that Enlightenment activity of naming, categorizing, mapping, and measuring everything was so tied up with wanting to seize and control everything, one potential response is to say that all categorization is bad. Maybe we should just sort of live in a world without distinctions, a world in which we just accept everything for what it is. But I don’t think that’s right. That feels both kind of overly ambitious, and also maybe not really desirable anyway. 

Sissel: No, I think categorization is something that all humans inherently do to kind of create systems and to make sense of the huge diversity of things in the world. But what we were interested in was dismantling some dominant categorizations and modes of making sense of the world, just a little bit. Showing how they’re not universal, and they’re also not neutral, and they have their own categories of coming into being. 

That makes sense. Earlier, you talked about how the natural world is kind of impossible to categorize. It’s impossible to put all the plenitude of existence into little pigeon holes, and that is definitely true. But at the same time … it’s impossible not to categorize, right? We give names to things, we connect things up, we set things apart. 

Sissel: For example, I was reading a book by Lynn Kelly, who’s written about indigenous knowledge systems that are based on huge categorization models and inscription into sacred spaces. So it’s not to say that categorization or mapping is useless at all. It’s more to bring in a different perspective on what maybe gets left out from the kind of mapping and categorization that we are most deeply familiar with, the kinds we take for granted. Then one thing we focus on is how the environment changes. What you might call the Western map tends to be very fixed in time. 

It also tends to be a kind of view from nowhere. It’s very disembodied. What we call a ‘bird’s eye view’ isn’t really how a bird would see the landscape below. But your work reminds us that space is always experienced from a particular place within that space. And by a particular body …

Sissel: Right, so how do you try and map these constant changes that are happening in our bodies’ reaction to our surroundings? And that’s what I find so interesting working with the galvanic skin response instruments that we created. Our bodies have these constant reactions to our experiences that are completely beyond our control. I mean, of course you can hold your breath, or pinch your arm, and you will have a spike in this electric current in the skin. But it also becomes like a guiding map of your body’s experiences, which I think is really beautiful. This technology has its own weird story and it’s very esoteric.

So we’re talking now about these body extensions you created, such as the Metasensation Gloves, which filter and augment the user’s sensory experience in various ways, including feeding back the user’s own biometric data. I’m really fascinated to know, if you can describe it, what is it like to wear?

Jonathan: What is it like to wear?

Sissel: I think it’s very meditative.

Jonathan: I think it’s very meditative and it’s also informative. It’s as if you’re kind of getting new information about your own body and about the environment that you weren’t kind of keyed into before. It’s a bit cliché to say, but it is like having an extra sense, a sense that allows you to kind of perceive and direct your agency in a different way than you would without that extra sense. But it’s also very meta, because it’s a sense that’s very tied in with your own experience of that moment and that environment. It’s like the additional sense of what’s going on in your body. So in a sense … you’re sensing yourself sensing! I think that’s quite interesting and quite expansive.

Sissel: I really enjoy the work of the anthropologist Anna Tsing, who talks about the art of noticing. And I think it is a tool for noticing this interrelationship between the sensing body and the ever-changing environment. You start to think, ‘What did I just sense that maybe I cognitively didn’t pay attention to, but my body was sensing on a different level?’

Jonathan: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. For example, I was walking around at one point and there was a lot of cloud cover, and then something happened in my body and I was like, ‘Wait, what was that a response to?’ I couldn’t tell. Nothing I was paying attention to had changed. But what had happened was the cloud cover had moved and there was now sunlight on me. My body had picked up on that, even though I wasn’t conscious of it. So it is very much giving yourself a key into what your body is noticing outside of your conscious frame.

Sissel: That’s something we then developed together with other makers in our initiative the Augmented Attention Lab, which is a kind of pressure cooker for thinking of what kind of technologies can we develop that don’t scatter our attention, but instead attune it to different things in the environment. Jon often comes at things from a media archaeology perspective. What I found really fascinating working on this project was always to explore the social and cultural background of some medium you’re occupying, or some technology you’re using.

Jonathan: Like the map.

Sissel: Like the map. Yes, exactly.

Jonathan: Or biometric recording devices.

So you’ve created these goggles, this weather vane periscope, the air pressure measurement harness, the gloves. What was the actual process like? What was the most interesting, or the most challenging, to create?

Sissel: We didn’t think so much about it!

Jonathan: Once we got there, we had such a limited amount of time to work, that we just really started making things.

Sissel: The MultiMadeira residency was in this kind of big abandoned house that was just full of people, like full of artists. So we were just in this living room on this table, just like sewing away and programming away. The goggles and the wind periscope were really inspired by Lydia Clark and Rebecca Horn, who are both artists who have worked with prosthetics that extend the senses.

And what if I were to say, ‘Whoa, hang on. You’ve only got your five senses, and it’s impossible for a human to have a new sense. We can have technologies that direct those senses in particular ways and focus them in particular ways, but ultimately the kind of interface with consciousness is always through these five fixed channels, or maybe six at a push.’ I don’t believe that. And I think these wonderful sensory wearables you’ve created — which are so science fictional even though they’re real! — are a practical demonstration that things are more complicated. But I was wondering, can we articulate that a bit? What actually is a sense?

Jonathan: That’s a fantastic question actually. Let’s just assume for a moment that we only do have these five senses and they’re very well compartmentalized. Well, even within those senses, we have the ability to decode multiple layers of information. So we can kind of pack more senses into each one of those senses. So for example, let’s just take sound. You might think of sound as a one-dimensional sense, because it’s just this vibration. it’s basically like a movement of some matter of back and forth, and that back-and-forthness is what you’re sensing. But compressed within that is all kinds of patterns of sound. And so there’s actually a lot of bandwidth for information in there. So even if we want to compartmentalize the senses into these very rigid input streams, even then there’s actually always room for more senses within each one of these input streams.

Right. And then on top of that, they’re not compartmentalized.

Jonathan: Sure. I think the idea that there are only five senses has been debunked again and again. The kind of spectrum of sensory inputs that we get is clearly more than that, and it’s also extremely cross referential and synthetic in many ways. So the fact that senses are always cross-referential and synthetic is important to focus on when you’re thinking about technology as sensory ‘augmentation’ or sensory ‘limitation’ or whatever. There is definitely more than this neat compartmentalization into five senses.

Just as a baseline, senses are always augmenting and limiting each other.

Jonathan: And with these technologies, in some way you’re recombining or adding to the different sensory input streams. And then the brain is extremely plastic and able to adapt to different patterns, different combinations of these input streams, and to construct completely new percepts from them. One of the most striking examples of that is research that’s being done into allowing people to see with sensors on their tongues. So using a properly calibrated camera, connected to electrodes on the tongue, set up so that the stimulation reflects what the camera is picking up, the brain of someone with vision disabilities is able to re-adapt and actually create some kind of sensory percept of what’s going on visually.

I’ve heard about this. So it doesn’t kind of happen right away. The neurology adapts.

Jonathan: Another great example is this experiment, it’s like a really classic cognitive science experiment, where participants were asked to wear glasses that would mirror the vision of their two eyes. So there would be like a pen or something, and I would try to reach for it, but I would be reaching here. After a month of wearing these glasses, the brain re-adapts itself enough that I can …

Sissel: Use the other hand.

Jonathan: I can reach here. So that kind of plasticity is a really important part of these kinds of sensory augmentations. On our Madeira trip, we didn’t really get a chance to fully explore this, because we were only there for a few days actually. Ideally you would want to wear these extensions for longer periods of time, if you really want to see the power. When you wear the peripheral vision goggles, or the metasensation instruments that key you into what your body is doing, it’s very confronting at first. It’s new and strange and you don’t know how to kind of leverage it to have an agency with it, and to create meaningful percepts from it.

Right. It takes time.

Jonathan: For example, I did an experiment where I was using electromagnetic pickup coils to listen to the electromagnetic behavior in my laptop and in my smartphone. And I did this for a month and after a while, I started to get a feeling of what my computer was doing, even without looking at the screen. You know, there was just an intuitive feeling like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s some email coming in now.’ 

Oh my God!

Jonathan: No, really! Or like, ‘My computer is not doing very much right now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I’m moving the mouse too quickly,’ or something like that. So that’s a good way of thinking about what senses are. Sense is highly plastic, it’s a very layered, cross-referential combination of these different inputs that get synthesized into percepts. 

Sissel: Another interesting example is how a galvanic skin response is being used with autistic children. So Rosalind Picard is developing this arm band for autistic children who are feeling sensorially overwhelmed, but don’t have the language to express it to their caregivers. This piece of technology indicates when they’re getting hyper-stimulated. It’s an example of how we don’t all have the same sensory input because people are different, and bodies are different, and ways of processing sensory impressions are different. And then you have, for instance, blind people who use echolocation to bike around and things like that. So in a way we’re also trying to dismantle a singular normative way of perceiving the world, which is usually defined by the people in power who are making those technologies are doing that science. 

Jonathan: That’s such a good point. This division into these clear-cut senses, it’s also a kind of normalization of bodies. So in way, there’s a kind of violence behind it that we need to think about.

That the world is just ‘out there,’ waiting to be perceived, and that there is a normal or proper way of experiencing it, prior to individual interpretations kicking in.

Sissel: I’m also really interested in earthquakes. I’ve been reading a lot about magnetoreception in animals, and there’s all this inconclusive research about how different animals perceive an earthquake before it happens. Sensing the humidity in the air or in the soil, to sensing the tilting of the ground. You see ants moving in a very particular way. And I’m thinking there are probably also senses that we just haven’t discovered yet, or that are so faint that perhaps they haven’t been given too much attention. 

It’s interesting to think about a minimally viable sense, something that is just on the threshold between being a sense and not.

Sissel: And again, you can see that there is a particular Western perspective. When you look at earthquake studies from China or Japan, there’s much more focus on the early perception of signals of an earthquake or tsunami. And I find that really interesting as well, much more of an openness to, ‘Well, maybe we haven’t figured out everything about the human sensory system.’

Jonathan: Right, or that anything beyond these five standardized senses is really the job of technology to solve.

Sissel: Yes, exactly. We have this project called the Intimate Earthquake Archive. We think of it almost as a training ground for perceiving the different vibrations of manmade earthquakes that are due to gas drilling here in the Netherlands. It’s an ongoing project, using this seismic data from a huge databank from the Dutch Metrological Institute to create these kind of ‘deep listening’ experiences in the body.

That’s so interesting. The way sense is distributed across humans and non-humans. And that kind of thinking brings in the social aspect of senses. Earlier you talked about how you’d ideally like to be able to wear one of those sensory augmentations for a long time. I guess the other kind of critical mass is social, rather than temporal. What happens when you’re not the only one who’s wearing it? If society is kind of built up around different sensory experiences and sensory affordances, how might society be different if different senses were more widespread?

Sissel: During the lockdown people have started talking about skin hunger. Especially if you’re not living with somebody like a partner or a child or a parent, you may just be interacting audiovisually, and that becomes so limiting. Recently I’ve seen a lot of artworks — Alice Héron and Margherita Soldati’s ‘Skin Hunger’ is one — trying to address this fundamental need for touch. Of course, exploring that in a safe way, where you’re not in danger of contaminating each other. But still trying to have some sort of like tactility. It’s something that’s being down-prioritized in a screen-filled world.

Right, that’s such a good point. Zoom can be thought of as a kind of sensory augmentation, as well as a kind of restriction. So this really is a time of new critical masses, in terms of technological transformation of our collective sensing.

Sissel: The pandemic is also a big challenge for the Intimate Earthquake Archive. There are these vests that people have to wear. So we’re completely redesigning them and trying to figure out, well, how they can still be safe. We’re looking into anti-bacterial, antimicrobial textiles that can also be wiped down, these kinds of things. Because I think it’s important as artists not to just, you know, go completely online. We should be thinking in the realm of like, how can we also engage other senses, while still being safe, of course.

If I were trying to create things like this myself, or start exploring this kind of terrain anyway, how should I start?

Sissel: One cool exercise that we’ve used before, which I actually picked up doing a residency at the SenseLab in Concordia University, is this peripheral vision exercise. You basically put your two pointer fingers in front of you, and then you kind of keep looking straight ahead, but you draw them slowly apart, keeping attention on both fingers in the periphery. And then you sort try to activate your peripheral vision by keeping a little bit of a focus on those two fingers, and that really activates your peripheral vision. 

Wow. I love that there’s that point where you’re like, I don’t know if I can see it or not. Like I can see something, I can see movement, but I can just see the movement itself, I can’t really see the thing that’s moving.

Sissel: And when you start moving around, you notice how the brain is kind of conditioned to keep everything still and steady on your focal point? But actually things are moving around in a really trippy way on the periphery. You’re never really paying attention to it normally.

Jonathan: I think we were reading Tom Stafford’s Mind Hacks, which is a very practical kind of handbook on hacking cognitive functions. That’s really full of these nice points of inspiration to start thinking about how you might build something to challenge sensory conditionings. But the project was also in large part inspired by the ecology and the weather patterns in Madeira. The Wind Periscope was definitely inspired by the fact that we were on this mountainside where the winds were constantly going in different directions. The harness with the air pressure thing with the weather balloon attached to it was also kind of inspired by that. We already had the plan that we wanted to go to a very specific place in Madeira. Sissel already kind of knew what the landscape was like and what the climate was like.

Sissel: Yes, it’s like a tabletop mountain. On Madeira, basically people are living around the side on the edge by the water, and then there’s this big tabletop. And on this tabletop, there’s this oldest primordial forest in Europe, I think. And it’s constantly being swept in clouds. So you’re constantly either inside a cloud or outside a cloud. You feel this really clearly. There’s this fog that’s completely obstructing your vision, and then suddenly it clears up, and then suddenly there’s another cloud …

Jonathan: Five minutes later. Yes, it’s crazy. I mean, it’s really like a cloud forest. But it’s also this kind of forest called Laurisilva, which is —

Sissel: Super old trees.

Jonathan: They’re laurel trees. It’s a type of forest that’s very particular to these cloud-filled, almost temperate rainforest environments. It’s characterized by these very low trees that hug the ground. And they’re sparse, so it’s this windswept forest space, and the way you move around it is very specific. It’s not like you’re entangled in a forest. It’s more like you’re moving around planes almost. It’s like a mountainside, but with a forest that’s trying its best to hug the side of the mountain.

I mean, in a simple way, it just all looks so beautiful. All the imagery generated is just so haunting and gorgeous. And intriguing and provocative. At the same time as I’m enjoying this image that is beautiful, but beautiful in a kind of familiar way, I’m also wondering, ‘What is the figure in this image experiencing?’ Can you talk a bit about the peripheral vision goggles?

Sissel: Well, they’re a bit of a prototype! It would be cool to really perfect them because they were also just made from cardboard on-site. But yes, they’re really trippy. 

Jonathan: Yeah! It was just very disorienting. They’re embedded with these mirrors. So it’s basically like a periscope going outward, that you’re able to wear on your face. And it focuses your forward gaze into more of a peripheral gaze. Like with the exercise with the fingers, you have this perception of movement in the periphery, but you’re not really quite sure if you can see what’s there. The goggles keep the detail you normally have in your center gaze, but projected to the periphery. So essentially what it gives you is, you have detailed vision in your periphery, so that you can actually identify objects and details.

And what’s that like?

Jonathan: It leads you to try to interact with your periphery, because that’s where your forward gaze is now divided to. Like I said, we weren’t there long enough to really adapt to it. In the two or three days that I was able to wear this thing, I was mainly trying to learn how to navigate my periphery. There was a lot of proprioceptive reprogramming. You know, like, like when babies are trying to understand space, they reach for things and think, okay, here’s a thing, there’s something here. So it was really, really interesting to return to this sort of primordial sea of vision, where your sense of vision is so concretely connected to touch. You learn to see first by touching. You’re returned to that moment of trying to understand the environment, trying to understand your body and my body’s orientation in space through this kind of touching. And I experienced that mental effort of associating the images coming into my eyes with the sensations of touch that I’m encountering.

How continuously did you wear them?

Jonathan: Maybe a few hours at a time each day.

Sissel: When we were shooting.

And by the end, did you find you were able to reliably reach objects? 

Jonathan: Yeah, I think I could very clumsily orient myself and touch objects. But you look absolutely ridiculous when you’re doing this because you just look like a lost amoeba floating around in the world!

But cool. I said the images are haunting and everything, but also they just make you look cool. A certain kind of cool.

Jonathan: The goggles look quite cool, but your movement is very … like it looks like you’re on some kind of drugs. Because you’re also experiencing the space in a completely different way. It’s kind of interesting actually.

Sissel: You can’t really walk from A to B because everything in front of you is blocked, right?

Did you shuffle sideways? Like a crab?

Jonathan: I didn’t move around that much, to be honest! Because moving forward becomes this monumental task. We have a lot of seagulls around here, so I have become like very deeply entangled in the seagull world in this area of the Netherlands. We’re living kind of high up, so we watched them nesting constantly. They’re everywhere. And the seagulls also have this eyes-on-the-side-of-their-head arrangement. And it’s really interesting. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the way they’re moving around. When they want to focus on something, they tilt their head sideways.

Sissel: You were channeling your inner seagull.

Jonathan: I was channeling my inner seagull.

Swooping down and stealing people’s chips.

Jonathan: There’s a lot of that also. But I think it’s interesting to look at how they move forward, because they don’t move forward with their heads sideways, of course. So, if you watch the way they behave, when they move forward, they make a conscious decision to just go to something.

Sissel: You’ve been thinking about this.

Jonathan: I’ve been watching the seagulls now for some time.

Sissel: That is obsessed.

Jonathan: Yes, I’m a bit obsessed with the seagulls. But I find that really interesting to watch how other animals who are incredibly acclimatized to this kind of visual structure.

For example, I feel like if a horse is looking at you straight on, you can see quite a bit of their eyes? Like there’s maybe a bit more stereopsis than with a gull? My main reference point is a cartoon horse though. But to finish with, can I ask a little about science fiction specifically? I saw Sissel mention Arthur C. Clarke somewhere. Do you feel like science fiction is an influence on your work?

Sissel: I think you’re really the more into science fiction. 

Jonathan: I mean, I’m really an avid reader of science fiction.

What have you been reading recently?

Jonathan: Recently, I’ve been going through a lot of Ursula Le Guin’s work. Really like all of it, in a sense, really digging through her catalog. I read recently the Three Body Problem trilogy. And I also recently read this book of classic science fiction. It’s science fiction that was written before — I think it was the Nebula Award. Anyway, they wanted to pay tribute to all of this science fiction that existed before the award began. So it was this collection of stories from the 1920s through to the 1940s which I found really interesting, mainly for being a kind of cultural snapshot of the times. There were some interesting stories in there though. Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names of God.’ 

That’s a real classic.

Jonathan: There were a couple in there that were really quite brilliant and provocative. I usually prefer hard science fiction, but Ursula Le Guin has totally won me over at this point. I’m really appreciating science fiction that’s more speculative in terms of social arrangements.

For me, Ursula Le Guin was definitely one of the ones who made me start questioning that category of ‘hard science fiction.’ It’s useful as a label, but she’s an example of a science fiction writer whose work is underpinned by a lot of research in a discreet way, anthropology, psychology, political theory. And then you’re like, actually, maybe even if she isn’t telling you exactly how much rocket fuel is needed to reach a particular orbit, maybe this work has its own kind of hardness or rigor to it.

Jonathan: Absolutely, I think that’s one reason I really got absorbed by her work. Her parents were anthropologists, and she was raised in that way of thinking, especially in the area of the US where she was. You really feel this influence of anthropological thinking. Also her exposure to a variety of cultures, including indigenous cultures, you really feel that in her work. It’s a kind of anthropological science fiction in a sense. I think that’s what really kind of grabbed me about her work. I started also thinking much more anthropologically in my own work, in my artistic work. And I really appreciated having these kinds of journeys to go on where we’re thinking about futures, thinking about technology, but always maintaining a kind of a cultural perspective. And I think that’s really inspired me. Most of my older work is really much closer to a traditional hard science fiction kind of worldview. But I think my work is becoming more and more like an Ursula Le Guin kind of science fiction.

Ambiguous utopias! And Sissel, what about you?

Sissel: I’m trying to get more into science fiction. I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction for a long time, but now I’m trying to sort of like make it a habit of reading more fiction as well. 

I guess there are definitional questions, and if you define science fiction, or speculative fiction, broadly enough, it’s everywhere really. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is science fiction, but in a way, so is your work.

Jonathan: And I think Sissel’s work in particular. Your work is really in a lot of ways, very science fiction.

Sissel: I grew up reading a ton of fantasy, more like YA fantasy stuff. My whole family are Tolkien fanatics. But yes, a lot of my work is narrative based. It’s speaking from the perspective of different imaginary creatures, and things like that.

I haven’t come across that yet. What can I look up?

Sissel: There’s a piece called Becoming Escargotapien. There’s an audio piece to that one.

Jonathan: It’s not just an audio piece.

Sissel: That’s the thing you can find online. It’s like an audio piece that’s spoken through this strange listening device that’s also bone conducting.

Jonathan: Right, and the narrative itself is about the permeability of the body, and this shared evolutionary history between humans and snails.

Sissel: Or bivalves.

Jonathan: And then what you’re doing now is full-on science fiction.

Sissel: I’m working on a project called Becoming a Sentinel Species with a microplastics expert, Heather Leslie, and an immunologist, Juan Garcia Vallejo. And we’re developing an imaginative story about humans wanting to take on the role of becoming sentinel species for microplastics. 

Like a canary in a mine.

Sissel: It’s inspired by immunological processes in the body that are these quite ancient alarm systems of detecting hydrophobicity in the body. And then our story is that microplastics are also highly hydrophobic and as the immune cells are encountering these microplastics in our blood, because there’s research showing that microplastics are entering our blood, it evokes memories like sort of like ancient latent memories of the primordial sea. Like being immersed in the primordial sea.

Jonathan: So it get distilled into a drug, and then they start to take it almost like an Ayahuasca sort of experience, to sort of pay tribute to the primordial ocean.

That sounds amazing.

Sissel: You’re welcome to the opening here in the Netherlands on the 11th of December.

I cannot wait. Both of you, thank you so much!

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